Best Friends

Tolbert Chisum met Stedman Graham in the late 80s at the Crosby Golf Tournament in North Carolina.

Tolbert’s employer, Aetna Insurance, sponsored the tournament. Stedman was living and working in North Carolina and on the board of the host organization. They met because Tolbert’s wife, Carrie, wanted to meet Stedman’s girlfriend, Oprah.

Because Tolbert was born and raised in Texas, a conservative republican, married, and raising children in Kenilworth, and Stedman was born and raised in New Jersey, single and living a very different lifestyle with Oprah, it seemed improbable that the two men would become best friends. But they did.

Listening to them talk about and with each other more than 20 years later is inspiring, because their bonds are based on the finest American values. They so clearly enjoy each other and their long history that they sound like twin sons of different mothers.

“Stedman’s my role model!” Tolbert declares. “He’s one of the most generous people that I’ve ever known.”

“They only come around every once in a while, people like Tolbert, who has acumen in business, politics, family, church, and who has to make a living but gives so much back. That’s an American success story,” Stedman enthusiastically exclaims. “People gravitate toward him because he has that special thing.”

Actually, both men have that special thing and they have both enjoyed considerable success since they met.

Tolbert co-founded North Shore Community Bank and is now a director of its private wealth group, Wayne Hummer. He has also chaired the New Trier Republican Party, served as a Kenilworth Village Trustee and on its Board of Education, and was President of the Metropolitan Club in Chicago. He is best known, though, for founding the Lincoln Library in Springfield and helping Mark Kirk win the 10th District seat.

Stedman is Chairman and CEO of S. Graham & Associates, a management and marketing consulting firm, author of two best-selling books based on his nine-step personal development plan, an adjunct professor at Chicago’s best universities, and founder of The Leadership Institute of Chicago and also Athletes Against Drugs.

Although shared success enhances the friendship, their bonds are firmly rooted in similar humble beginnings. “We both grew up poor in small towns, are named after our fathers, attended one room schools and were athletes. Stedman was the better athlete though, he played in college,” Tolbert says in his Sour-Lake-Texas twang. He then adds with pride, “We were the first members of our families to graduate from college, too.”

Stedman’s Jersey roots are not as prevalent in his accent. He continues the story, “My father was a painter, carpenter and landscaper—cutting lawns, trimming trees. He worked hard all the time. I worked with him evenings, Saturdays and, of course, during the summers.” His brown eyes light up. “That’s another bond. W-O-R-K. WORK! I don’t care how smart you are, it’s about work!” he says.

Other similarities? A minister was one of their mentors. They stayed close to their hometown roots. They served in the military and share a love of country and comrades. “Tolbert is an ex-marine. He’s going to be there on time. And he’s going to go down with you!” Stedman says with a grin.

“And our favorite dessert really is apple pie!” Tolbert says gleefully.

They also share strong commitments to giving back to their local communities. “I learned that the most effective organization grows from the inside out,” Stedman explains about the Whitesboro “Concerned Citizens” group he founded to improve state representation, the quality of family life and scholarship opportunities for youth.

They’ve even taught together. Tolbert helped Stedman get his first job at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. Oprah co-taught the class and Tolbert attended every session. Later, Tolbert co-taught with Stedman at UIC. “That was the hardest job I’ve ever had,” Tolbert quips, “and for no pay.”

Stedman retorts, “Wrong. We earned $5,000. That’s a pretty good position to be in, when you don’t remember making $5,000!”

Their strongest bond now may be on the golf course. A photograph of the two of them with Julius Irving at Ireland’s famed Old Head course graces Tolbert’s office. However, most of their games are closer to home. “The most fun is playing golf with Stedman at Skokie Golf Course and eating sushi afterwards in Winnetka,” Tolbert says.

It also appears that they support each other in work. “Tolbert has been a great mentor,” Stedman says.

Most of Stedman’s work now is based on the nine-step plan that he developed in response to a difficult time in his own life. “My goal is to teach identity education anywhere and everywhere—but especially to youth,” he says.

“His program really does work you know!” Tolbert says.

Because of similar backgrounds, shared community service beliefs, current interests, mutual mentoring and more, bond between these two men is a joy to behold and much good has flowed from it. Oprah’s best friend relationship gets a lot of attention, but much can be learned from Tolbert and Stedman.